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10 Essential Horror Movie Scores

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This feature originally ran in October, 2014. We’re resurrecting it as Halloween creeps closer.

How important is music in film?

“Music and cinema fit together naturally. Because there’s a kind of intrinsic musicality to the way moving images work when they’re put together. It’s been said that cinema and music are very close as art forms, and I think that’s true.” –Martin Scorcese

“Too broad a question. Let’s just say it covers a multitude of sins.” –Woody Allen

With the exception of musicals, no film genre capitalizes more on music than horror. It’s the lifeblood of any scare, whether it’s a cacophony of strings, an eerie piano scale, or a deafening bout of silence. Try and recall some of horror’s most iconic scenes and odds are your mind will also conjure up its accompanying score — or vice versa.

With Halloween a little under a week away, Consequence of Sound’s film staff decided to put together a list of the 10 essential scores in horror. Know that we only chose original scores, which nixed the likes of The Exorcist, The Shining, and Night of the Living Dead. Otherwise, you bet your bucket of candy they’d be on here.

Anyways, if you have any other suggestions, don’t hesitate to comment below. We’ll be watching.

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10. Hellraiser

Christopher Young

The music for Pinhead and his cenobites is constantly given short shrift thanks to the more popular music written for his horror movie rivals: Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, and Jason Voorhies. However, Hellraiser’s gothic score separates him from the other titans of the genre. With nary a synthesizer or a “Ki-Ki-Ki, Ma-Ma-Ma” to be heard, composer Christopher Young does a 180 on his doomy, underrated score from A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge by opting to provide beautiful music for a movie largely concerned with the topic of personal demons and actual, proper demons. The main, orchestral score is crucial to the theme of beauty and pain that co-exist for the film’s main antagonist (Uncle Frank is the real bad guy here, not Pinhead), but it’s those bells that chime when the cenobites are approaching that truly cause the bad dreams. Bottom line: The score to Clive Barker’s Hellraiser will tear your soul apart! –Justin Gerber

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09. Under the Skin

Mica Levi

Spoiler: We love Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. It was our No. 1 film of 2014 and while it’s proven to be somewhat divisive, it’s hard to dispute Mica Levi’s relentless score. Considering there’s next to no dialogue, the film leans on Levi’s abrasive compositions to tell the story of the dangerous alien visitor. “What you can get with the synthesized strings is it goes on forever, whereas a human can’t [achieve that effect] … there’s human error,” Levi told Variety. “But with this, you get this foreverness feeling.” Simple percussion acts as the film’s heartbeat, rarely disappearing for any moment of time, but it’s those uneasy strings that ring like rusty nails on a chalkboard. Altogether, the chaos lets us in on a secret unbeknownst to the men of the film: There’s something wrong with Scarlett Johansson. –Justin Gerber

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08. Jaws

John Williams

Steven Spielberg had a big problem on the set of Jaws: his three animatronic sharks kept breaking down. As he watched the first $250,000 Bruce (he collectively named the sharks after his lawyer) sink into the watery depths, he knew he was running out of time and options. But these potentially career-ruining malfunctions turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because 1) not seeing the shark for most of the film proved to be scarier than actually seeing it; 2) John Williams’ ominous, now iconic theme became the key to its terror.

“Da-da…da-da…” That’s the sound of the Great White coming closer, eying the meat of human legs as they dangle underwater. “Da-da-da-da-da-da-da,” the music builds as he swims faster, right up underneath the body, until that scream-inducing moment when a woman is jerked side-to-side like a ragdoll and pulled under, or a little boy’s raft is flipped over in a geyser of blood. In opting for a more daring, unseen enemy approach, Spielberg changed the way that movies are made, while Williams’ score continues to haunt generations of beachgoers who still think twice before dipping into the water. –Leah Pickett

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07. A Nightmare on Elm Street

Charles Bernstein

Freddy Krueger remains one of the most badass and terrifying horror movie villains because he exists in a place you can’t ever fully escape: your dreams. Many of the tracks from A Nightmare on Elm Street’s score, like the murky “Prologue” and “Main Title”, play like warped lullaby songs, lowering your guard into an uneasy sleep. The heavy use of synths (on “Dream Attack”, “Terror in the Tub”, and “No Escape”, for instance) has a quintessential cheesy ’80s feel, but they still work today by representing the feverish oddities of nightmares. “Laying the Traps” sounds more like a track from an action film, which works because the protagonists in the film actually fight back and make sensible plans to survive Krueger’s attacks. One of the creepiest parts of the score, however, is the sparse yet heavily distorted use of vocals, which Bernstein actually created by recording through Boss digital delay and echo pedals. –Killian Young

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06. The Thing

Ennio Morricone & John Carpenter

John Carpenter has a reputation as a do-it-all filmmaker; he directed, produced, wrote, scored, and acted in two of his earliest hits, Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween. But Carpenter enlisted the diversely skilled Ennio Morricone to score The Thing. Carpenter reportedly asked Morricone to simplify his initial attempt at the score, which led to the final, ominous version that almost perfectly meshes with Carpenter’s musical style.

Morricone — who made it all the way to the final round of our readers’ poll for greatest film composer of all time — managed to tap into The Thing’s major themes, like isolation, paranoia, and fear of the unknown. “Main Theme – Desolation” features staccato synths paired with gothic-style orchestral sounds, while the claustrophobic barrage of sounds on “Contamination” is enough to make you feel like creepy critters are crawling all over you.

The electronic flourishes fit the futuristic alien antagonist and the setting in an Antarctic research facility, but the more traditional orchestral pieces — like the deep, slow-moving strings becoming shriller and more urgent on “Bestiality” — play to The Thing’s strengths as a dread-filled monster flick. –Killian Young

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05. Suspiria

Goblin

It’s not often you see a live concert for a gothic horror movie soundtrack. Yet that’s exactly what Goblin does. In fact, the Italian prog rock band has performed their iconic scores in full countless times over the years, from theaters to film festivals. Just imagining the goth audience for that show — a lack of Molly, a surplus of black t-shirts — is kind of wild.

The appeal is warranted, especially for their work on Dario Argento’s Suspiria. It’s a catchy body of work that’s addicting even beyond the movie, which partly explains why Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, or RJD2 have sampled its melodies in the past. With regards to the film, however, Suspiria works elegantly in its suffocating confines, thanks to the litany of Moog sounds, choral grunting, rattling drums, and the rather innocent glockenspiel.

Goblin worked closely with Argento on his ballet school horror show, creating the music and score remarkably before anything was even shot. (Fun fact: They’re credited as The Goblins in the film’s credits.) The resulting music is a testament to their respective strengths, which has since received critical and commercial notoriety. So, see you at the next Goblin gig? Please, no razor wire cosplay. –Blake Goble

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04. Rosemary’s Baby

Krzysztof Komeda

Never has “La la la” sounded creepier than in Rosemary’s Baby, when Mia Farrow’s breathy lullaby lilts over plinking keys and dissonant electric harpsichord, signaling that darker forces may be at play in late 1960s fairytale Manhattan. The jazz-inflected theme music, arranged by Polish jazz pianist and composer Krzysztof Komeda, continues to tweak discordant notes throughout, offsetting a strings-led waltz and barely discernable hum to suggest a sweet nursery rhyme turned sinister.

As pixie-haired, pregnant Rosemary (Farrow) begins to distrust everyone around her, from her ogling neighbors (Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer) to her shifty husband (John Cassavetes) to the unborn baby growing inside of her, the tension in each pluck and quiver from Komeda’s orchestra gnaws and spikes to feverish levels of dread. By the final scene — “What have you done to its eyes?!” – the score reaches its howling, cacophonous zenith, giving chilling new meaning to the words “pregnancy scare.” –Leah Pickett

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03. Alien

Jerry Goldsmith

“[Alien] really scared the shit out of me, to be brutally honest. I was terribly frightened with it, which is good because it helps when I have to sit down and write the music,” the late Jerry Goldsmith explained in a documentary for Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece. “Any film I’m doing, I try to see it first as an audience and react as the audience and try to distance myself from what I eventually have to do.”

As such, Goldsmith’s score for Alien evolves rather organically with the viewer’s feelings of wonder and fear. It’s paranoid yet often elegant. The swells of tension within the iconic (and reworked) “Main Title” drift into fantastical bits that recall his best work on Star Trek. As the film inches on, Goldsmith embraces the terror with light prodding (“Eggs”, “Inside the Air Shaft”, “Trekking”) eventually strangling everyone in the final acts (“The Droid”, “Ripley Doubles Back”, “And Then There Was One”).

It wasn’t an easy process, though. Originally, Scott wanted composer Isao Tomita, but 20th Century Fox insisted upon a familiar name like Goldsmith, who pressed hard to inject an air of romanticism into the opening credits. Scott wasn’t interested, and Goldsmith deferred by carving out, in his words, “the obvious thing: weird and strange, and which everybody loved.” It also didn’t help that editor Terry Rawlings used pieces of Goldsmith’s past compositions — specifically Freud: The Secret Passion — much to the composer’s ire.

“You can see that I was sort of like going at opposite ends of the pole with the filmmakers of the picture,” Goldsmith later remarked. Nevertheless, the changes worked to the film’s benefit, and Scott would later champion the original score, calling it “seriously threatening” but “beautiful.” In hindsight, that dichotomy assisted in making Alien one of the most captivating motion pictures of all time. It’s a delirious two hours of sheer horror made possible by H.R. Giger, Scott, and, of course, Goldsmith. –Michael Roffman

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02. Psycho

Bernard Herrmann

REE! REE! REE! REE! REE! REE! REE! REE!

You know exactly what that is, don’t you? It’s the Master of Suspense’s most masterful score.

Psycho’s getting an incredibly high ranking on this list for two reasons. One, Bernard Herrmann’s beautifully sharp and dread-filled score is built on a foundation of strings being pushed and pulled every which way, further elevating an already feverish and shocking movie.

Two, is there a score more canonical, more pop culturally resonant and referenced than the score for Psycho? The American Film Institute ranked the score as the 4th best of all time in the “100 Years of Film Scores”, and even Hitchcock himself once said that “33% of the effect of Psycho was due to the music.” We’d argue 50% (the other half being the unfortunate ballad of Norman Bates).

Consider this trivia: Initially, the shower scene with Janet Leigh getting sliced and diced was intended to be silent, and at one point, Hitchcock even considered a jazz score. Instead, Herrmann prevailed, and with a score so effective and intrinsic that it’s almost crazy to imagine the film without it. Not Norman Bates crazy, but still.

Eventually, Herrmann would go on to score seven pictures for Hitchcock. He always insisted on creative control. And he always earned it. After all, a boy’s best friend is his composer. –Blake Goble

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01. Halloween

John Carpenter

A great score to any movie shouldn’t stand alone; it should walk tall and unbridled. John Carpenter’s Halloween is a testament to this truth. In the early summer of 1978, months ahead of the film’s October release, Carpenter received a final cut of the film sans any music or sound effects, which he screened for a young executive at 20th Century Fox. “She wasn’t scared at all,” Carpenter wrote in the soundtrack’s liner notes, adding: “I then became determined to ‘save it with the music.'”

Inspired by Bernard Herrmann and Ennio Morricone, Carpenter and creative consultant Dan Wyman, who worked with him previously on Assault on Precint 13, huddled inside the very tiny Sound Arts Studios in central Los Angeles. For two weeks, they composed in “double-blind” mode, which, according to Carpenter, means “on the spot, without reference or synchronization to the actual picture.”

The iconic theme came from a 1961 exercise Carpenter’s father taught him on the bongos; “Laurie’s Theme” and “The Myers House” were born out of “Herrmannesque” melodies; and the use of “cattle prod” stingers elevated the film’s visual surprises. What makes it all work, though, is how these minimal compositions evoke sprawling, hypnotic atmospheres that haunt and stalk anyone tuning in — no different than the film’s terrifying Shape.

“The music is just fabulous,” the late Gene Siskel gushed in his original review. “The way he starts one theme and lays another thing on top of it, keeping the other theme. It’s really good.” It’s also startlingly beautiful. The strolling climb of “Laurie’s Theme” is eerie, sure, but there’s a regal shine to the notes that evokes the youthful innocence of the song’s namesake. In other words, Carpenter didn’t just string together spooky sounds; he captured personalities.

“About six months later, I ran into the same young executive,” Carpenter’s liner notes read, continuing the story. “Now she too loved the movie and all I had done was add music. But she really was quite justified in her initial reaction.” Shortly after, he concluded: “Someone once told me that music, or the lack of it, can make you see better. I believe it.” In the case for Halloween, the music didn’t just save the film, but created it. –Michael Roffman

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